In one of 2020’s most important swing states, voters’ views of the Democratic-led House’s moves to impeach President Donald Trump are still forming.
And, in some cases, they’re more complicated than many in Washington might expect: Some Trump voters say they’re eager to see what emerges from public hearings. And some Democrats say they’re fretting about alienating voters the party needs to win over in next year’s election.
Jonathan Eeg, a 62-year-old retiree who lives in nearby Mount Pleasant, said he really wants Trump out of office. “He’s dangerous,” he said in an interview at Wilson’s Coffee and Tea in Racine.
But he’s worried about the political fallout of impeachment with less than a year remaining before the 2020 election.
“This is going to go right up to the election time. And then it could be detrimental to Democrats,” he said. “I’m concerned about that.”
“It’s not going to change the way I vote,” said Eeg, who added that in the Democratic presidential primary, he is likely to back the candidate who at that point appears most electable in a general election match-up with Trump. “I don’t have a sure answer. But I’m very concerned about it, I really am.”
Southeastern Wisconsin’s Racine County is a bellwether, voting with the eventual winner in every presidential election since 1988. It’s one of 23 counties in Wisconsin that supported then-President Barack Obama in 2012 and then voted for President Donald Trump in 2016.
The county is divided between the more diverse, Democratic-leaning city of Racine and the whiter, more suburban, more conservative rest of the county.
A New York Times Upshot/Siena College poll released this week previewed what could be another tight presidential race in Wisconsin, with former Vice President Joe Biden leading Trump by just 3 percentage points there, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders up by 2 points and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren even with Trump in hypothetical head-to-head general election match-ups.
The poll of Wisconsin and five other battleground states found that voters so far support the House holding impeachment hearings into Trump, but oppose removing him from office — suggesting to Democrats that a relatively small set of voters exists that doesn’t yet want Trump removed from office but could be persuaded.
A Marquette University poll out late last month found that 44% of Wisconsin voters want Trump impeached and removed from office, while 51% do not want him impeached and removed from office.
Jon Favreau, the former Obama speechwriter and “Pod Save America” podcast host, recently conducted focus groups with voters Democrats need to win in Wisconsin and three other marquee 2020 states — Pennsylvania, Florida and Arizona — for a forthcoming podcast called “The Wilderness,” which will be out in January. In Wisconsin, the group he spoke with were people who voted for Obama and then Trump. He said he found that “there were just so few strong feelings in either direction.”
“I’m no longer scared that it’s going to be some kind of backlash because the feelings don’t seem that strong either way,” Favreau said. “But I’m less confident that it’s going to move a bunch of people.”
He said the testimony on Capitol Hill in recent weeks — which in Washington seemed politically damaging for Trump — has “not penetrated much at all.”
That assessment appears to have held up after Tuesday night’s election when, in Kentucky, the prospect of Trump’s impeachment didn’t appear to motivate Republican voters. Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin had tried to nationalize the race by campaigning with Trump and playing up his opposition to impeachment. The result: He ended Election Night narrowly trailing his Democratic challenger, Andy Beshear, in a state Trump had won by 30 percentage points three years earlier.
Favreau said how voters feel about impeachment is likely to change as the House moves into a new phase of proceedings with public hearings. He said what swing voters and independents hear might not be the deciding factor in how they vote, but it’ll be “one more piece of evidence in their mind as they’re going to the polls in November.”
He said the focus group attendees largely said they don’t see Washington as more or less corrupt since Trump took office, and didn’t have “a lot of love for the Democratic Party.”
But, Favreau said, “when they talk about Trump, it’s all the sense of embarrassment, frustration, loss of pride in America because of what he’s done.”
“And so that does make me think that a character attack on Trump through impeachment about what he’s done could be effective,” he said. “I thought I would hear more complaints about like, ‘He tried to take away my health care,’ or something related to the issues. But it was so discussion about Trump was so disconnected from actual issues and so much more about his personality and leadership style. That sort of surprised me.”
‘I’d like to see the facts’
Some Trump supporters, meanwhile, say they are paying close attention to the impeachment proceedings and are eager to hear what emerges in public testimony — even though they don’t want to see Trump removed from office.
“I don’t want my vote taken away,” said Caye Christensen, a 72-year-old retiree who said she voted for Obama in 2008 and backed Trump in 2016. But, she added, “I’d like to see the facts and hear the real facts.”
Her friend Caroline Siler, a 72-year-old retiree who also said she voted for Obama in 2008 and then for Trump in 2016, also said she is paying close attention.
The two said they are looking forward to hearing from witnesses directly in public hearings, without the filter of news anchors synthesizing their words.
But Siler said right now she sees the allegations of misconduct in Trump’s dealings with Ukraine as another in a series of controversies that have been “thrown against the wall and didn’t stick.”
“I know he’s outrageous. I know he is not somebody I would say I want my family or my children to act like,” Siler said.
“But I think the economics and his trying to address some of the problems that we’ve had that have been kicked down the road for a long, long time makes me balance out how I feel about him,” she said. “Is he great? No — he’s got his faults, we see that. I just feel like he also has done things right and I wish they would talk about that a little bit more.”
Meanwhile, those who voted for Trump in 2016 but are now looking for other options said they don’t want to see Congress pursue his impeachment.
Annette Harpole, a customer service worker in Racine, voted for Trump in 2016 — and thinks he deserves credit for enacting criminal justice reforms and “opportunity zones,” which are tax breaks for investing in low-income communities.
But she said she’s most interested in Andrew Yang, the Democratic entrepreneur who has built a strong online following, in 2020. She said she voted for Trump because he was “disruptive” and that she’s now closely watching the Democratic race and sees Yang as a “logical follow-up” because he’s also a break from the political system but comes across as “more of a uniter.”
“I’d rather focus on getting the word out about the actual candidates running for president rather than spending our resources on impeachment. There’s only one year left,” Harpole said. “Get people out to vote. We need people to believe in the system again.”
Meanwhile, some progressive voters here say they want to see Trump held accountable — no matter the potential for electoral backlash, or the likelihood that the Republican-controlled Senate would not actually vote to remove Trump from office.
“I wished that they would have started impeachment a long time ago,” said David Hewitt, a computer technician and veteran of the Vietnam war who lives in Racine and backs Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. “And I have enough experience watching politics to know that I have no idea how it’s going to go.”
“I feel that it has to be done. You have to go on record. History will see it,” he said. “It would be worse for us to not impeach him than it would to impeach and fail.”
Sherry Engstrom, who lives in Lake Geneva and teaches college humanities and financial literacy, said the worst-case scenario is that “there’s some sort of sympathy vote” for Trump if he is impeached and not removed from office.
But, she said, “I just can’t fathom that.”
“We should all be concerned about international interference in our elections. And we have to keep telling the truth,” Engstrom said. “All of us are responsible to get that stuff out there and not have our heads in the sand.”